My heart fluttered at the sight of Avian, but I managed to choke out four awkward words.
“Hey, there. What’s up?”
Avian rolled her eyes, pushing past me and into the office. “Don’t act like you’re happy to see me. You never call, and you never visit. I’m just here because the Public Servants sent me here.”
I closed the door as she flopped onto my cot. “Why did they send you to me?”
“The Human Wolf,” she responded. “Apparently he’s put a hit out on me. The Public Servants don’t know why, but they decided it was better for me to lay low for a while.”
“Wait, wait.” I held up my hand. “The Human Wolf is coming for you? Personally?”
She shook her head. “Nah. He’s sending The Triangle.”
I dropped my face into my hands. “Va te faire foutre, Luca.”
“Who?” Avian cocked her head curiously.
“Nothing,” I sighed. “The Public Servants were right to send you here. If my intuitions are correct, I expect I’ll be hearing from The Human Wolf himself as well.”
“Well, when are your intuitions wrong?” Avian muttered mockingly. “I mean, other than when you decided to be a mother.”
I frowned, ready to lash out, but bit my tongue instead. “You know what? I deserve that.”
Avian scoffed, looking around my cluttered office. “So, are we staying here? Because I’m pretty sure your address is on Google Maps.”
“No.” I shook my head. “I’ve recently made some friends with access to safe houses around the city. Let me make a call, and we’ll rendezvous with them.”
The monorail vibrated against its tracks as it banked around a corner, the city streets passing below us in a blur. With my car totaled, Avian and I had to resort to public transport, but I didn’t mind. This high up, the city didn’t feel so . . . dark. I leaned against the window, relishing the cool glass.
“Who are these ‘friends,’ again?” Avian demanded, tugging uncomfortably at the slightly oversized spare street clothes I’d give her to wear over her costume.
“They claim to work for the Public Servants,” I quietly replied. “As spies, or something.”
Avian frowned. “I’ve never heard of anything like that. Are you sure you can trust them?”
“I think so.” I glanced at her. “I suppose we’ll find out. It’s better than what I can offer.”
“Is that why you sent me to live with the Public Servants in the first place?” she asked. “Because you think that they’re better than what you can offer?”
I shrugged. “You saw my place, right? How am I supposed to raise a child in those conditions? With a job this dangerous?”
“Dangerous?” Avian hissed. “I fight criminals and monsters all day. Don’t lecture me about dangerous lifestyles.”
“No.” I shook my head. “It’s not the same.”
“What about, I don’t know, a mother?” my daughter continued. “The Public Servants are a sausage-fest. The only woman is Miss Liquid, and she’s not exactly a motherly type.”
She slumped against one of the poles mounted inside the monorail. “Spectral Man is alright, but they aren’t a family. They’re basically a branch of the military. You sent me to a military school for drama queens.”
“There’s a lot of choices I’ve had to make,” I sighed. “I regret most of them. Especially the ones that have pushed you away. But I made them because I wanted to protect you from dangers far worse than the ones you currently face. I hope you eventually see that, when you’re older.”
“Older?” scoffed Avian. “I’m almost a legal adult.”
I rubbed my temples. “I just mean–”
My sentence stopped short as I saw Piston approach us on the monorail with her team, pushing through the crowd. Today, they wore bulky street clothes, which likely hid various weapons and equipment they wanted to keep away from prying eyes. I met eyes with the woman, and she nodded, sidling up to us.
“Long time no see, mate. What’s it been, twelve hours?”
Avian furrowed her eyebrows for a moment, examining Piston. Then, her eyes widened, and she growled at the woman through clenched teeth.
“You! You were there when that Russian analyst was abducted!”
She jumped to her feet, pulling her jacket slightly back to reveal Chirp asleep in an inner pocket. Glancing over Piston’s shoulder, she pointed at Cylinder and Turbine.
“I recognize you two, too! You shot me in the head! We’re gonna kick your ass.”
I placed a hand on Avian, encouraging her to lean back against the pole. While she collapsed in a huff, I glared at Cylinder. “You shot my teenage daughter in the head?”
Cylinder offered an awkward smile. “Uh, well . . . it was a rubber bullet . . . and she was in her bird form . . . I knew she’d be okay. To be fair, she threw me out of a moving car on the highway first.”
I raised a hand to stop him, closing my eyes to collect myself.
“Little bitch,” Avian muttered. “Put the guns away and see who hurts who.”
Crucible stifled a giggle.
“Avian, please,” I snapped. “Obviously, they’ve done . . . questionable things. But that makes them all the more qualified to help us now.”
“Quite right,” Piston said. “So, here’s the plan. We’re going to lay low for a few more stops, then hop out near the library. There’s a safehouse across the street that we can bunker down in until The Triangle gives up, or we stop them.”
Crucible stepped forward, chiming in. “Who is The Triangle, exactly?”
“Three of Vampire King’s most elite minions,” explained Turbine. “They were knights, turned into vampiric warriors during the Dark Ages.”
“While their experience is formidable,” I added, “it’s not the only danger they pose. Are you aware than some vampires develop unique abilities when turned, much like second-class SPIs?”
Crucible nodded, and I continued.
“Well, for whatever reason, these three hit the jackpot. Each developed a master of a natural element; fire, water, and air. I’m honestly not even sure I understand the science behind how they do what they do.”
“To be fair,” Cylinder interjected, “you can turn into a house cat. Sometimes, a little faith in the improbable is necessary to not go crazy.”
“You hush, sir,” I chastised. “I’m still angry with you.”
A young girl brushed past us, raising an eyebrow at our hushed tones. When she saw Avian, though, her jaw dropped. “Hold on. Are you Avian? The Public Servant?”
My daughter chuckled nervously. “Uh, no. I get that a lot. We just look alike.”
She shifted a little, and Chirp poked his head out of her jacket pocket. The girl squealed, pulling out her phone. “Oh my God, it is you! Guys, look, it’s Avian!”
A crowd began to form, snapping photos as Avian covered her face.
“Christ above,” sighed Piston. “I guess we’re getting out at the next stop.”
I stepped between my daughter and the amateur paparazzi, pushing against them. “Back off. She’s not interested in entertaining you today.”
The distinct chime of a photo being uploaded to social media reached my ears, and I felt the blood drain from my face.
“You heard that too, huh?” Turbine commented. “That’s not good. The Human Wolf is definitely going to be monitoring social media feeds.”
The monorail began to slow as it approached its next station. Piston, Cylinder, and Turbine shoved the crowd aside, clearing a path for Crucible, Avian, and myself. The six of us hurried off the vehicle, keeping Avian out of view. As we made our way through the station, looking for the stairs to avoid being trapped inside an elevator, The Call tugged at the back of my mind.
“Damn. I think they found us.”
As the words left my mouth, metallic footsteps stomped against concrete in the distance, and the door to the stairwell we’d neared exploded off its hinges, flying into a screaming crowd. From the stairwell emerged three figures in medieval armor, each sporting a different weapon: A broadsword, a mace, and a lance.
“Turbine, we need to contain this,” Piston commanded. “Kill the cameras.”
Turbine nodded, closing his eyes. I heard a low hum, and felt my hair raise a little. Suddenly, every visible electronic device screeched, exploding in a shower of yellow sparks. The lights overhead burst as well, darkening the station until we could only see by the sunlight filtering through the windows.
“That’s a neat trick, young squire,” said the vampire with the broadsword, who I understood to be named Percival. Well, “Percival the Merciless,” but I wasn’t going to call him that.
Balan and Tancred, the vampires with the mace and the lance, respectively, slowly edged further from Percival, surrounding us as the crowd backed away. I saw security guards emerge from their booths, leveling pistols at The Triangle.
“Drop your weapons! We will shoot!”
Percival expression shifted into one of boredom, and he apathetically flicked his free hand in their direction. A ball of fire erupted from his palm, rocketing through the crowd and immolating the guards. The men screamed shrill cries of pain for a moment before succumbing to the flames, collapsing in smoldering heaps. The smell of their cooked flesh reached my nostrils, and I gagged a little.
“Maybe we should have brought the Public Servants with us,” muttered Piston.
“Excuse me, I’m right here,” Avian snapped, shrugging off her jacket. “And I’m not letting anyone else die for me.”
As Chirp fluttered up into the air, Avian transformed, sprouting claws and feathers, her eyes growing black and bulbous. Wings burst from the back of her clothes, and she took flight, hurtling towards Percival.
“Avian, wait!” I cried, but she seemed not to hear, or not to care.
Percival offered the girl an amused grin, standing still without even raising a hand to defend himself. When Avian was within a few feet of striking him, Balan intervened, whacking her in the ribcage with his mace and sending her crashing through a wall on the other side of the monorail station.
“Alright, team,” Piston said. “Let’s drop some bodies.”
The squad fanned out, reaching into the folds of their clothes and shedding layers until their weapons were revealed. Cylinder strafed to the left, opening fire with a pair of silver Magnum revolvers. They thundered and bucked with each trigger pull, and the rounds collided with the breastplates of the vampire trio’s armor, punching fist-sized dents into them without penetrating them.
“They’re sealed up like tin cans!” he yelled, tumbling out of the way of Percival’s retaliating fireball.
Piston sprinted forward, carried aloft by her superhuman legs muscles, and dove beneath Tancred’s lance, twisting up into a back-kick that further crumpled the armor.
“Good thing I brought my can opener,” she quipped, producing a sawed-off, triple-barreled shotgun.
Tancred flicked his wrist, and a gust of wind spiraled around Piston, knocking her into the air as she fired. The blast, which I now realized contained a heavy slug round, went wide, colliding with a fluorescent light panel overhead and shattering it. Tancred leaned forward, and another gale kicked up behind him, propelling him forward with the point of his lance aimed at Piston’s chest.
At the last moment, Piston dropped onto her back, pressing her boots into Tancred’s midsection and using his momentum to send him tumbling head-over-heels across the now-empty monorail station. I saw Balan approach, mace raised, but Avian reappeared, body-slamming him to the ground and knocking his weapon from his hand. I hurried to help her, keeping an eye on the others.
Nearby, Turbine and Crucible engaged with Percival, the former using his circular blade to trade strikes against the vampire’s broadsword. Crucible flanked Percival in the meantime, scaling his back and trying to remove his breastplate to give Turbine access to the parasite on his heart. Percival seemed unfazed, though, and while he fought Turbine, his armor began to glow a faint orange, presumably as he used his abilities to heat it. Crucible screamed in pain, falling away from the armor, her hands and legs smoking from the heat.
I tried to follow Crucible’s failed strategy with Balan as my daughter traded heavy hand-to-hand blows with him. Shifting into my cat form, I joined Chirp on the vampire’s shoulders, and we used our respective beak and teeth to pry at the straps beneath Balan’s armor. While we pulled at the leather, I saw Balan reach one hand towards his mace. The nearby wall rumbled, and the outer layer suddenly crumbled away, revealing a system of water pipes. Bursting, the pipes flooded the area around the mace with water.
The water rose into the air, rumbling towards us like a miniature tidal wave. I tried to clamp my jaw around the straps beneath the armor, but I could not gain enough purchase, and Chirp and I were washed off Balan’s shoulders, tumbling across the floor. Behind me, I saw the water coagulate around the spiked ball at the end of the mace, creating a larger liquid sphere that advanced the weapon’s range. Avian tried to swipe at Balan with her claws, but he swung the sphere into her chest, this time sending her crashing through the ceiling and out of sight. I pulled myself to my feet, returning to human form, and Balan approached, readying another swing, this time for me.
A gunshot rang out, and a large bullet whizzed over my head, perfectly colliding with Balan’s clenched fist and knocking the mace from his hands once more. The control he had on the water dissipated, and the sphere collapsed like a burst water balloon, flooding the area around us. I turned to see Cylinder circling beyond Balan’s reach, Magnums raised.
A thud sounded behind me, and I turned to see Piston sliding into the water, propelled by another gust from Tancred. Beyond her, Percival brough his sword down against Turbine’s blade, driving the man to his knees. Percival grinned wildly, and a wall of flame rose around them, drawing closer with each passing second.
“Crucible!” I yelled, catching the girl’s attention as she struggled to her feet, despite her severe burns. “It’s time to level the playing field.”
She nodded, popping a tablet into his mouth and swallowing. Percival noticed, and turned away from Turbine, raising his hand in her direction. Before he could incinerate her, Avian hurtled through the ceiling, batting his arm aside and sending his stream of flame over Crucible’s head. Crucible fell to the ground, seizing, as the mantis tore her apart from the inside. Percival cocked his head in curiosity, but Avian upper-cut his jaw, knocking him backwards.
Balan and Tancred readied their weapons, advancing on the scene unfolding in front of Percival. I saw Crucible’s cloak, which she must have hidden under her street clothes, rise above a pool of blood and viscera, exposing the mantis’s bulbous eyes and clicking mandibles. The three vampires surrounding her balked, stepping back a little.
“What beast is this, Percival?” asked Tancred.
Balan was the one to reply. “No matter. We shall slay it like we’ve slain so many others.”
“Jesus, you guys are insufferable,” Piston groaned.
The mantis screeched, pouncing on Percival. As the vampire fell onto his back, he hissed, and a column of flame emerged from his body, turning the mantis above him into an insectile silhouette. The monstrous shadow twitched, hurling Percival into the nearest wall. As the flames dissipated, the smoking mantis turned to look at Turbine, spitting Percival’s breastplate from between its mandibles.
“Curses!” Percival snarled, struggling to his feet and reaching for his fallen broadsword.
Before the vampire could recover, Turbine darted at him, issuing a palm-strike against his bare chest. Yellow sparks showered away from the blow, and Percival stiffened, falling back against the wall. He shuddered for a moment, eyes rolling into the back of his head, before melting into nothing but a bloody skeleton, his bones crumpling into his remaining armor.
“Percival!” cried Balan and Tancred in tandem.
Tancred took aim with the point of his lance once more, summoning a gust of wind that propelled him towards the mantis’s head. Piston intervened, leaping between them and issuing a spin-kick which knocked the vampire off-balance. Balan moved to assist, but Avian grabbed him from behind, suplexing him into the ground.
As Cylinder, Turbine and Piston rushed to contain Tancred, he slapped the ground, producing a burst of air like a thunderclap. The shockwave washed over the trio of would-be attackers, knocking them in opposite directions with enough force to rip their various weapons from their hands. Two revolvers, a sawed-off shotgun, and a circular blade all clattered across the station floor. One of the revolvers slid up against my feet, and I snatched it up, running into the scene.
“Inspector, stay out of this!” yelled Piston as she struggled back to her feet. “We got this.”
Ignoring her, I opened fire, aiming at Tancred’s center mass. The gunshots numbed my hands, and the bullets punched new dents into Tancred’s breastplate, but I could not puncture it. Still, I’d created the desired effect, and Tancred turned away from the others, aiming his lance at me. Suddenly, Chirp swooped in, snatching the weapon from his hands. He gasped in surprise, but before he could react further, the mantis accosted him from behind, using its scythe-like front appendages to shred the armor from his upper body.
As the metal fell to the floor, Cylinder saw his opening, and he scrambled forward on hands and knees, reaching for the closest firearm. Tancred inhaled, and I felt the barometric pressure shift around us, my ears popping as if I’d been tossed atop a mountain. Before he could exhale, though, Cylinder fired a shot from his prone position, the bullet whizzing across the station and punching a hole in the vampire’s heart. He, too, melted away, his shocked expression turning to liquid.
“I . . . I can’t believe it,” muttered Cylinder, looking at the weapon in his hands: Piston’s sawed-off shotgun. “I made the shot without a revolver.”
“Push came to shove, mate,” Piston replied. “It’s close enough anyway, right?”
He handed the gun back to her. “I suppose so.”
Behind me, I heard Balan and Avian still trading blows. When he saw the state of his comrades, he snarled, batting her away with his mace.
“No more!” he hissed, raising his weapon over his head. “I play games with thee no more.”
Through the holes in the ceiling left by my daughter, I saw the sky darken, the clouds overhead gathering and turning black. They swirled down, condensing into a stream of pure water, which took the appearance of a dragon. The liquid beast crashed into the station, angling at the mantis and clamping its crushing jaws around it. As the shaped flood expanded, I saw Piston and Cylinder swept away, too. Before Turbine could also succumb to the tidal force, he made eye contact with me, and kicked Percival’s fallen broadsword across the floor.
Behind me, I heard Chirp’s wings, and I stomped on the sword handle, flipping the weapon up into my hands. Spinning around, I tossed it into the air, and Avian’s genetically-enhanced canary caught it in its talons, circling the oblivious vampire. Chirp released the blade, and as it fell, Avian caught it, swooping down from the sky. She drove the broadsword through Balan’s exposed neck at a downward angle, so that the blade slipped beneath his armor and pierced his heart from above. Balan screamed, and the water-dragon lost shape as the vampire melted into wet bones and empty armor.
“Listen, mom,” Avian said, tossing the bloody sword aside as the others sluggishly reconvened in the center of the station, “you don’t need to worry about me anymore. I can clearly take care of myself. Stop hiding from me.”
I glanced at the carnage around me, running my fingers through my hair as I contemplated her words. “I just don’t want to see you get hurt, chère. There’s so much you need to know.”
“Tell her,” I heard a voice boom from behind me, and my blood ran cold. “You heard the girl. Stop hiding from her.”
I turned to see a black-haired, olive-skinned man calmly approaching, his muscular body rippling beneath a navy suit and tie. He spoke again, his accent thickly Eastern European.
“You thought you could pretend like she doesn’t exist? Shame on you, Annelisse.”
Avian turned to me, furrowing her eyebrows. “Mom, what is he talking about?”
I held up my hands in defense. “Luca, listen. I know I didn’t tell you, but you must understand–”
“Stop lying!” he growled, his eyes fading to white. Black fur sprouted from his skin, and his body engorged, growing thicker and taller. Despite his increase in size, the suit stretched with him, remaining intact; likely, a creation of Black Pharaoh’s. His face elongated, becoming a toothy snout, and he snarled at me, producing razor-sharp claws from his blackened fingertips.
“The Human Wolf,” Piston announced, dropping fresh shells into her shotgun. “Well, we’re fucked.”
The wolf-creature howled, barreling forward. Piston and Cylinder opened fire as he approached, but they might as well have been shooting him with a child’s wishes, because he seemed not to notice the projectiles as they disappeared into his fur. The mantis skittered in front of the others, trying to intercept his attack, but he spun into a back-fist, striking the insect across the head with enough force to leave hairline cracks along its carapace. Shrieking, the mantis attempted to back away, but he followed up with an uppercut to the abdomen, causing more bits of shell to break away, exposing its soft interior. A final attack, a roundhouse kick, sent the mantis flying, and it crashed into the station wall with enough force to rattle my bones. Turbine rushed to assist the fallen creature, reaching into his pocket and producing a glucose tablet.
Avian, Chirp, Piston, Cylinder and I rushed The Human Wolf simultaneously, and he growled at us, wrapping his clawed hands around Piston and Cylinder’s waists and lifting them into the air. Avian and Chirp rammed into his chest and bounced away, as if they’d tried to assault a skyscraper. Ignoring them, The Human Wolf hurled Piston and Cylinder in opposite directions, and they slammed into opposing walls, collapsing to the floor, unmoving.
“Luca, stop this!” I cried.
A circular blade whirled through air, colliding with The Human Wolf’s head, to no effect. As it ricocheted away, Turbine ran forward, summoning the weapon back to his hand.
“Turbine, please stay out of this,” I pleaded.
He ignored me, slamming his palm against The Human Wolf’s chest. Arcs of yellow electricity pulsated across the creature’s body, causing his fur to stand on its ends, but he seemed otherwise unaffected. Leaning back slightly, he kicked Turbine in the chest, sending him tumbling across the floor in a blur.
Avian flew upwards in her bird form, covering The Human Wolf’s face with a barrage of super-strong punches. He barely flinched, plucking her from the air by her wings and holding her in front of his bared teeth. Chirp collided with his head like a softball, but he flicked the bird away, sending it careening backwards with a pained tweet.
“Okay, okay,” I conceded. “I’ll tell her.”
The creature looked at me with his white eyes, the animalistic expression somehow expectant. Avian, too, turned to me, morphing back into her human form.
“Avian,” I began, “The Human Wolf isn’t trying to kill you. He’s trying to take you. As in, take you into his custody. He’s your father.”
Her eyes widened. “My father is a super-villain?”
“He wasn’t always,” I replied, shaking my head. “He was originally a victim of Black Pharaoh, back during the second World War. When I met him during the third war, I was young and impressionable, and he was wizened by his years of nigh-immortality. I saw the good in him, despite the violent, cannibalistic urges with which his alter-ego burdened him. We were together for a while, but he eventually succumbed to his addiction, opting to work with Black Pharaoh to get what he craved. His heroin, unfortunately, is carnage. And I couldn’t stay with that.”
The Human Wolf lowered Avian to the floor before transforming back to human form, staring at me through tear-filled eyes. “You never told me you were pregnant.”
“How could I?” I demanded. “How could I, Luca? What, were you going to take her to live with you? To become a monster, like what you chose to become?”
“No, I understand,” he said. “But why make her live with them?”
“I . . .” I choked back tears of my own. “I thought, if I distanced myself from her, you’d never know who she really was. You’d think she was just another Public Servant.”
“Well, you see where that led,” he spat. “I found out anyway. And now I’ve lost over a decade with my daughter, to these military freaks. She’s no better with these soldiers-for-hire than she is with me, colorful costumes or not.”
“Dad,” whispered Avian.
He balked at the title. “I haven’t deserved that name, Avian.”
“Fine. Luca.” Avian sighed. “I wish you were able to be my father. Someone I could trust, or look up to. But my mom was right in keeping me from you. I don’t agree with how she did it, but she was right. You’re dangerous. You kill people. You eat people. I may have your shifting abilities, but I won’t become you.”
She turned to me, continuing. “But Luca is also right. The Public Servants are not a family. They serve one purpose, and I’m tired of being a part of that world. I want to come live with you, mom.”
“Really?” My eyes widened. “After all this time?”
Avian nodded. “Luca knows the truth now, anyway. And I think he’d rather me live with you, the mother who loves me, than with his enemies. Isn’t that right, Luca?”
Her father nodded. “I can accept this compromise.”
“You have to understand, Avian,” I cautioned. “I’m a slave to The Call. I see people who need my help, and I help them. I may not be a superhero, but I’m hardly better than the Public Servants.”
“You care about me, though,” she insisted. “You want to see me thrive. You want to see me happy. Right?”
“Then train me, in your own way. A normal life is too far behind me. But I don’t have to be a symbol. I can help people privately, like you. Help me become a detective, like you.”
Looking to Luca, I raised an eyebrow. “Is that going to be a problem?”
He pondered for a moment before responding. “I don’t like it, but if she’s going to help people, I’d rather her do it with you at her side. We know more about the Public Servants than you might think, and they’re no better than us. You, though . . . I know who you are. You’re a good mom, even in your absence. Watch our daughter, and I’ll leave you both alone.”
His gaze swept over the others. “No promises for your friends, though.”
The squad of SPIs limped towards us, and Piston spoke up. “Let me just catch my breath, mate. Then, it’s round two.”
Luca chuckled. “No, I don’t think so. Not today.”
He returned his attention to Avian, and to me. “Keep her safe, Annelisse. If something happens to her, the same will happen to you, tenfold.”
I scowled. “Spare me the threats, Luca. Get out of here.”
Sighing, he turned his back to us, walking beyond the station and out of sight.
“What do you think he meant?” Turbine asked, collapsing into a seated position on the floor. “What he said about the Public Servants.”
“Who knows?” Cylinder replied, sitting next to him and exhaling loudly. “He’s a super-villain. Why should we trust him at all?”
Piston joined me at my side, putting a hand on my shoulder as she spoke.
“So . . . you fucked a wolf, then?”